Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyTagged Content List

Space Systems

Unmanned space systems, including vehicles, robotics and supporting technologies, as well as technologies for space situational awareness

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The goal of the Orbital Express Space Operations Architecture program was to validate the technical feasibility of robotic, autonomous on-orbit refueling and reconfiguration of satellites to support a broad range of future U.S. national security and commercial space programs. Refueling satellites would enable them to frequently maneuver to improve coverage, improve survivability, as well as extend satellite lifetime. Electronics upgrades on-orbit would provide regular performance improvements and dramatically reduce the time to deploy new technology.

Before DARPA was established, a President’s Science Advisory Committee panel and other experts had concluded that reliable ballistic missile defense (BMD) and space surveillance technologies would require the ability to detect, track, and identify a large number of objects moving at very high speeds. Responding to these needs, DARPA in 1959 initiated a competition for the design and construction of a large, experimental two-dimensional phased array with beam steering under computer control rather than requiring mechanical motion of the antenna.

Known as the Electronically Steered Array Radar (ESAR) Program, the focus of the effort was to develop low-cost, high-power tubes and phase shifters, extend component frequency ranges, increase bandwidth, apply digital techniques, and study antenna coupling. DARPA pioneered the construction of ground-based phased array radars such as the FPS-85. This radar system had a range of several thousand miles and could detect, track, identify, and catalog Earth-orbiting objects and ballistic missiles. The FPS-85 quickly became part of the Air Force SPACETRACK system and was in operation from 1962 until the SPACETRACK unit was deactivated in early 1967.

DARPA initiated a microsatellite program featuring extremely small microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) radio frequency (RF) switches. The first picosat mission, launched on January 26, 2000, demonstrated MEMS RF switches operating on a pair of tethered satellites, each one weighing just over one pound. The program demonstrated how constellations of small satellites could work together in the future with dramatically reduced size and power requirements.

In its first months, ARPA managed and funded rocket development programs that would prove to be long-lived and far-reaching. Among these was a launch-vehicle program under the auspices of Wernher von Braun’s engineering team that would transfer to America’s new civilian space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). There, von Braun’s initial booster technology, Juno V, would lead to the cluster-engine Saturn V Space Launch Vehicle, famous for its role in manned spaceflight to the Moon.

Another DARPA-authorized program in 1958, development of a liquid oxygen/hydrogen (LOX/LH2) upper-stage rocket known as Centaur, also transferred to the fledgling NASA. After several failures, the Centaur booster achieved its first successful orbital flight in 1963 and its first successful mission in 1966. Centaur rockets improved the ability of U.S. launch vehicles to place sizeable payloads into geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) and helped pave the way toward future lunar and deep space missions. During its evolution, the Centaur LOX/LH2 upper stage technology has been used extensively on Atlas and Titan boosters for diverse missions. Centaur engine technology was also used in the upper stages of the Saturn rockets for the Apollo manned missions to the Moon and in the Space Shuttle’s liquid hydrogen-oxygen engines.

At a mountaintop event in New Mexico on October 18, 2016, DARPA handed off ownership its Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) from an Agency-led design and construction program to ownership and operation by U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), which operate the telescope in Australia jointly with the Australian government.